Quad 21L Loudspeakers
In 1936 Peter
Walker founded the Acoustical Manufacturing Company, which for many years produced
public-address systems. In the years after World War II, Walker expanded his
companys product line to include high-fidelity equipment for the home. The brand
Quad, originally an acronym for Quality Unit Amplified Domestic, was begun in 1949. Since
that time, Quad has been a leader among British audio manufacturers. Walker was presented
with the Queens Award for Technological Achievement in 1978.
Quad is best known for their amplifiers and electrostatic
speakers, such as the very first full-range electrostatic, the ESL-57 (aka
"Walkers little wonder"), and the current ESL-988 and ESL-989. These
speakers do indeed sound fantastic, but most people will find two problems with them.
First, theyre rather large (the smaller ESL-988 measures 37"H x 26"W x
12"D), and dont blend in with many living rooms; second, theyre expensive
(the ESL-988 now lists for $7000 USD/pair).
Quad has recently introduced a line of dynamic speakers,
the L series, that brings the hallmark Quad sound to a product line that many more people
will be able to afford and enjoy. The series consists of two bookshelf speakers, the 11L
and 12L, and two floorstanders, the 21L and 22L. For those who prefer multichannel home
theater and/or music, matching center-channels and subwoofers are also available. Here, I
take a close look at my favorite L model, the 21L floorstander ($1300/pair).
Like all Quad L speakers, the two-way 21L looks stunning.
Its cabinet is made of 18mm-thick MDF covered in real-wood veneer. Each of the seven
layers of piano lacquer is allowed to dry for 24 hours before the next coat is applied.
The 21L comes in four standard finishes: maple, birds-eye maple, piano black, and
cherry; there is also a limited edition in yew. Anyone worried about spousal approval
neednt worry: the 21L measures only 31"H x 8"W x 10"D; a pair of them
can be easily and unobtrusively worked into even a formal living room. My wife and I
collect Stickley furniture and our cherry Quads nicely blended in without calling
attention to themselves.
The Quad 21L has a 25mm textile-dome tweeter and a
6.5" woofer, and is rated as being a 6-ohm load. On the rear of each speaker are two
sets of heavy-duty, gold-plated speaker terminals to facilitate biwiring. Quad suggests
biwiring at the speaker end even if your amplifier has only one set of speaker terminals,
to minimize crossover stress. This should provide a noticeable improvement in sound, but I
didnt have a set of biwire cables and was unable to take advantage of this feature.
Im eager to do so in the future, but my setup needs long cables; biwiring would be
expensive. The 21Ls come with bridge connectors if you choose not to biwire.
The speaker comes with a nice set of floor spikes that
screw into its base, and rubber feet to place the spikes in if, like me, you have hardwood
floors youd rather not damage. The spikes add about an inch to the speakers
Each 21L weighs close to 35 pounds; while it was helpful to
have an extra set of hands for unpacking them, moving them around to get the right
placement was easy enough on my own. The 21Ls should be set up at least a few inches from
both the side and rear walls. If theyre placed too close to the rear wall, the bass
will get boomy; moving them just a few inches will solve this problem. Optimally, of
course, the speakers should be as far from each other as they are from your listening
position. While some speakers can be persnickety about this, I found that the Quads
allowed a pretty wide seating area with little loss of imaging. Getting speaker placement
right can really enhance your systems sound; its worth taking the time to do
it correctly. Once you have the distances right, you can play some music and slowly toe-in
the speakers until the imaging at your listening seat is just right.
For most of this review, I used a Rotel
RA-02 integrated amplifier and Rotel RCD-1070 CD player. I also used the Quads
extensively with a Sony SCE-775 SACD player and a Pro-Ject 1.2 turntable equipped with an
Oyster cartridge. Finally, I auditioned the speakers with Rogue Audios Tempest
integrated amplifier and the Rotel CD player. The Rogue is a high-end model that Ive
liked for some time, but I lack the nerve to spend more than $2000 on an integrated amp.
Still, I wanted to make sure that, were I to be stricken with upgraditis, the Quads would
still serve me well. I had no need to worry -- the Quads only got better with the Rogue (I
think I feel upgraditis coming upon me already).
I always begin an audition of new gear with Louis Armstrong
and His All-Stars playing "St. Louis Blues," from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C.
Handy [Columbia/Legacy CK 64925]. This may not be the best-recorded album, but
its one of the most fun. If a piece of gear cant get my toes tapping and my
heart racing when I play this track, I just move on. But from the first notes from
Armstrongs trumpet, the Quads had me smiling and swinging. I listened to the entire
nine-minute track without hearing anything but the pure joy of Armstrong and his band. The
Quads passed the Fun Test with flying colors.
The most remarkable thing about the Quads was how they
could seem to "disappear." Their imaging and soundstaging were such that, if I
closed my eyes, I could almost believe the band or orchestra was right there in front of
me. When I put on Badly Drawn Boys "You Were Right," from his Have You
Fed the Fish? [Artist Direct Records 80119-01066-2], my wife came in to ask, "Are
those the only two speakers on?" When I assured her they were, she said, "This
is amazing. I can see -- I mean hear -- exactly where each musician is." She then
pointed out each place across the front of the room where a musician would have been.
The 21Ls are the first speakers Ive had in my home
that created such a holographic presentation that the music didnt seem to be coming
from the speakers. The music just filled the room as if materializing out of thin air.
When I listened to André Previn and the London Symphony perform Gershwins Rhapsody
in Blue [EMI 5 66943 2], I was there in the concert hall: first-row balcony, I
believe. With electronica albums, such as Erland Řyes Unrest [Astralwerks
ASW13321], the blips and beeps emerged from the ether with a nice bit of ambience that was
missing with other speakers Ive had.
My music mania crosses many boundaries. Ive noticed
that some speakers really shine with one sort of music, while being merely okay with
others. Dance and rock music, for example, can sound great even when the bass is
exaggerated; acoustic music does not. I prefer as realistic a sound as I can get, and the
Quads did an admirable job of this with whatever I played. If your musical tastes run to
rock and dance, however, you might think the Quads too polite, not aggressive enough. I
think they are aggressive enough, but if youre used to boosted bass, it might
take you a while to recognize the beauty of what instruments really sound like. Through
the 21Ls, no single instrument sounded overly pronounced; everything sounded lifelike.
The 21Ls authoritative presence may be of concern to
some. These speakers are not for background music -- the way they throw out music demands
your attention. To me, this is good; but if youre looking for speakers mainly for
background music, the Quads may be too much of a good thing.
I think the 21L is the best of Quads L series. The
bookshelf models, the 11L and 12L, share with the 21L the same basic L-series sound but
lack some of the bass that the 21L is able to reproduce. Combine this with the fact that
youll need to buy speaker stands for the bookshelf models, and I think its
worth springing for the 21L.
A good part of the great joy I got from the 21Ls was for
their holographic imaging. If your speaker-placement options are far from ideal, however,
this imaging is likely to disappear. In such a situation, you might be better off with
less expensive bookshelf speakers (such as the excellent Axiom
M3ti) and a good headphone setup for serious listening. I really like the combination
of the AKG 501 headphones and the HeadRoom Little headphone amplifier. You could have the
Axioms and the headphone setup for less than the cost of the Quads and, in the situation
Ive described, you might be happier.
The biggest difference in my listening habits made by the
Quads has been with my headphone listening. I used to be a serious headphone enthusiast,
have owned some of the best headphones (most recently, the Grado RS-2 and AKG 501), and
still really like HeadRoom headphone amps. But my headphone system was unable to compete
with the realism Im able to achieve with the Quads. I used to listen to headphones
at least an hour or two a night; since the Quads arrived, the only time I listen to
headphones is when I walk the dog or am in my office. When Im home, the Quads win
There are some speakers I like more than the Quad 21L, but
all of them fall in the price category that includes the Quad ESL series -- that is,
several times the cost of the 21L. In the 21Ls price range (I listened to speakers
up to $2500), I could find nothing I preferred, and several I liked much less. If
youre looking for a floorstanding speaker that will provide years of enjoyment, the
Quad 21L may well be for you. Its a significant investment, but it should last you
for years -- even if you begin to suffer from upgraditis. Their appearance, imaging,
soundstaging, and overall sound are nothing but magnificent.
...Eric D. Hetherington
Price of equipment reviewed